Race recovery is different to post-training recovery as the damage to the muscles should be far greater than anything you do in training. There are different things to consider and more care should be taken.
By full recovery, this means that you can do a high-quality training session or another race with no residual fatigue or affects remaining from your last event. Fatigue means you’ll be tight and tired and therefore you’ll be far more liable to burn-out and injury. We would even suggest most injuries are not picked up in high-intensity racing but in the period afterwards, due to people getting impatient and resuming training too soon.
Many different things affect recovery rate. These include the race distance, your age (the older you get the slower recovery will be), your conditioning level, your nutrition and hydration status pre, during and post-event, how much you tapered, and life stress. It’s important to listen to your own body as other models are made differently and will respond in their own way.
Generally, if all races were done for the same amount of time, you would recover faster from bike events than from triathlon, and triathlon will take less time to recover from than running. It’s due to the load and impact that the body has to take on and absorb.
So what can you do to speed up the recovery process?
An obvious one, but down-time should include periods of ‘active recovery’ where you exercise for short periods at a very light intensity (swimming or cycling are better than running due to the non weight-bearing factor). This helps get the circulation going which helps transport waste products away from tired muscles. Sitting down doing nothing will merely induce extra stiffness and will actually prolong recovery time.
At races you’ll often see massage therapists set up ready to treat you immediately post-race. BEWARE!! This is the worst time to get a massage. The muscles are already hot with lots of blood-flow, and damaged, so applying further pressure will increase damage and heat/inflammation. A very gentle massage can be quite soothing and alleviate cramp etc but stay well clear of any deep-tissue work for at least 48 hours, once the healing process is well under way. Gentle stretching and ice application is best in the period between the race and your massage.
Applying an ice-pack or sitting in a bath full of frozen cubes (for up to 10 mins) is a good way to reduce muscle damage and transport toxinated blood away from fatigued muscles. Don’t apply an ice-pack directly onto skin as this can cause an ice-burn; instead wrap it in a tea-towel or other thin material before application. Ice will speed up recovery process slightly, but don’t expect full-blown miracles. Recovery does take time.
Plan to have something non-sporty to do in your free time in the week after a race. This will fend off the boredom of not training so much and there will be less of a lure to get going again before you are really ready. Organise some social gatherings and inject a dose of normality!
Compression tights are a great form of recovery as you don’t actually have to do anything other than put them on! According to the Skins website: “When you apply compression to specific body parts in a balanced and accurate way, it accelerates blood flow. Better blood flow helps your body to get rid of lactic acid and other metabolic wastes – which helps you work at a higher rate for longer. Plus, improved oxygenation reduces the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness and accelerates muscle repair”. Compression also helps eliminate swelling and muscle soreness, so it may well be worth trying out a pair. For a cheap version, a pair of flight socks works in the same way.
Ok, what was said about the negative effects of sitting around doing nothing isn’t totally true: you can do this sometimes, in between your small bouts of active recovery. Just make sure that your legs are elevated above your heart, for maximal draining effect.
7. Hydration and Nutrition
Absolutely crucial. Ensure you drink plenty of electrolytes after the race to replace lost fluid and sweat. If you don’t then lethargy will be far greater and much more prolonged. Also aim to eat within a few minutes of finishing. Sometimes our stomachs seize up a bit so liquid energy can be just as effective at this stage. Eating a decent, balanced meal within the first 2 hours of finishing will have your nutrition sorted and boost the recovery process. The body needs a lot of fuel in order to undertake a full overhaul from total depletion back to normality!
Help your body to help you.